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No Longer Empty

redefining public art through temporary site-specific exhibitions

Aug 7


Often the term Public Art is used interchangeably with Art in Public Spaces – parks, intersections, squares and the like. What is the function of art in these spaces and how does it connect to or serve the Public? Are the commissioners of such art fulfilling a public mandate or need?

Untitled (Lamp/Bear) by Urs Fischer at the Seagram building, NYC, August 2011.

Whose or which “Public Interest” is served by Urs Fischer’s, Untitled (Lamp/Bear) outside the Seagram building on Park Ave, in New York, a version of which will be auctioned by Christie's? A few blocks away, Ai Wei Wei’s, Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads was opened with statements from the art world’s luminaries, but where is the programming to further their meaning and significance to the public they serve?

Inspired by No Longer Empty’s deeply felt need and quest to bring art, and the life expansion art can give, to a wider public, this conversation aims to create a discussion and generate ideas as to how we can best reach and serve the many publics that are so often abstractions in the practice of Public Art. Manon Slome, Founder and Chief Curator, and Naomi Hersson-Ringskog, Executive Director at No Longer Empty host the conversation.

What is the function of art in public spaces and how does it connect to or actively serve people?


No Longer Empty

redefining public art through temporary site-specific exhibitions

I think it is important to begin by saying that we at No Longer Empty did not set out with a manifesto for public art in any sense. We began by organizing an exhibition in a vacant store front next to the Chelsea Hotel in New York that was very much a response to the economic downturn in 2008/9. The public response to that exhibition led to the next project in the Meat Packing district and to us gradually realizing that our way of working in vacant storefronts was producing something meaningful and important for all involved. So what we have become at this point is based very much on practice rather than a priori theory. Like many of our exhibitions, our organization has emerged and evolved as a result of working in a very open way with artists, our own members and by being responsive to the feedback of what has worked or not in the communities where we have been. We certainly don’t claim to be urban reformers – but working in diverse neighborhoods, we have tried very much to develop a notion of accessibility to art for a wider public while revitalizing empty spaces and bringing much needed foot traffic to the streets where the exhibitions are located.

We are committed to bridging the gap of exclusivity that is palpable in many art spaces– by bringing high quality contemporary art exhibitions to vacant spaces in diverse neighborhoods throughout New York City and ultimately beyond that as we grow.

Our model to date has been mainly to utilize vacant storefronts for they provide opportunities on a number of levels:
1, they are on the ground floor – really important for attracting the local foot traffic
2. they provide often challenging and unusual settings that can provide creative opportunities for artists
4. they carry no “prviledged space” associations and this sense of unexpectedness – leads to exploration and an open attitude in the viewer
5. Because the landlord is keen to rent the spaces- and understands the visibility we can bring to them – we get the spaces donated. This allows us to not only exist – but means that any funds we raise go toward art not real estate! Very liberating!

Each of our exhibitions is site-specific – each one a response to the space and we hope in each case to foster a cultural/educational hub where a community of artists, educators, scholars, and most importantly, the public, can come together to create and experience art, free of market imperative and institutional constraints.
The overarching mission of No Longer Empty is to present art in environments that are free and accessible to all. Our exhibitions aim to engage directly with visitors, drawing on the resources and connections of community groups to provide meaningful programming which expands and reflects on the exhibition.

We would love to hear some of your ideas for how art can function in public spaces – how it can connect and enrich. Thank you for taking the time to be with us on this conversation.

Manon Slome

Sunday, August 7 at 8:22pm

One of the primary goals of commissioning art in public spaces, at least in the context of Percent for Art, New York City’s permanent public art commissioning program, is to enhance the aesthetic experience of the public realm, to give it a sense of dignity. In a civic context – public schools, courthouses, plazas, parks, streetscapes, police facilities, water treatment plants, to name a few – the kinds of places where New York City’s Percent for Art program commissions permanent artwork, artwork is developed to add meaning to a place, to humanize public design. That public artwork connects to (or with) people or actively serves a community of people is difficult to quantify. Oftentimes we only hear about the effect of an artwork in the negative, as in, “this artwork does not represent us, the community as we see it,” or, “this artwork is literally in our way, an obstruction.”

New York City’s Percent for Art program commissions art that is selected by a panel of City stakeholders, arts professionals, and community representatives. Many times the panelists involved live and work near the site where the artwork will be installed, but they will ultimately not have access the site. An example of this is an artwork by artist Lane Twitchell who made a series of artworks called “City Windows” for a Department of Homeless Services facility, an emergency intake center for homeless families. The facility is in the South Bronx, and it’s unlikely that the panelists – City stakeholders and arts professionals and community representatives – will be using the facility, which is a place for homeless families to seek housing. Twitchell’s artwork is richly detailed, laser cut, painted kaleidoscopic works sandwiched between glass, installed as windows between conference rooms and waiting rooms. Hopefully “City Windows” provides families waiting to consult with caseworkers with something beautiful to look at.

More publicly accessible spaces where we commission artwork are plazas. Currently we are in the process of commissioning six artists (Ellen Harvey, Ester Partegas, Matthew Geller, Xu Bing, Austin Thomas, and Leni Schwendinger) for six new plazas around the City. There are different functions of the art component of these new construction projects, depending on who you ask. Local communities often want the artwork to represent the community itself, to be a reflection. The artist usually wants to make an original artwork that will contribute to the identity of the site. As the director of Percent for Art, I want the artwork to represent the artist’s vision and to offer those using the site with a high quality art experience, that may not be understood in the first viewing. This is not always supported by City stakeholders or community groups.

For me the ideal outcome of a permanent public artwork is that it provokes a new awareness of a public space, for instance a new sense of its history, culture, and design. That new awareness shouldn’t be jarring, but it should have enough depth to be viewed repeatedly without disappearing or becoming a nuisance. If art is designed to serve a public to an extent that the artist is unable to express her vision freely, I’m not sure the artwork is successful.

Sunday, August 7 at 11:38pm


    No Longer Empty

    redefining public art through temporary site-specific exhibitions

    In trying to resolve the desire of the community to have a work that is representative of that community, and of the artist to create a work that is true to his/her inspiration or response to the site, how much time does a commissioned artist spend in the given community? What ways could the local knowledge and dialogue be facilitated so that the local population or users of the site feel invested in the final work? Could artist talks, workshops and programming also help bridge the gap and facilitate making the art work contribute to high quality experience that you are so committed to creating?

    Monday, August 8 at 10:51am


    Project For Empty Space

    Art in abandoned urban spaces with a focus on community building and art education

    Thank you NLE for hosting a topic of discussion that is pertinent to the work that Project For Empty Space is focused on. To give some perspective to our work, we pretty much have the same beginnings as NLE. We wanted to bring art into spaces that were “empty”, at a time when the art world was going through a lot of change post the economic crash in the late 2000′s. While that formed part of the impetus, it wasn’t the only reason. In our own work as independent curators we were interested in what art meant within and outside the institutional and commercial world and the various relationships that exists within the confines of the art world. For Jasmine and myself, our work was essentially rooted in these discussions at an individual level which led to the creation of PES as a means to navigate the issues, problems and concerns we had in our own individual practice and perhaps even giving us the liberated feeling of creating something that can function beyond the realm of just the art world. Jasmine was deeply interested in street art and I was interested in the relationship between the institution and the individual (and very much influenced by the history of institutional critique and the like and what it might mean in today’s context.)

    PES was of course not purely born out of individual interests but it was informed by them. And we are fully aware that PES is really growing to be an entity unto its own. Working in an abandoned lot at 181 Stanton that is our site, we as cultural producers see our work tied in to some core activities:
    1. To provide a platform for local, young artists for creating work that responds to the nature of the site and its surrounding neighborhood.
    2. Creating a means by which we forge a strong relationship with the community and build something sustainable and long term instead of being a temporary solution.
    3. Providing a platform for art education.

    We function in a very organic manner in that we leave a lot of the programming open to feedback and collaborations. We feel that to involve as many players working within this realm and building a relationship with them is key because we are all working towards the same core goals albeit in different capacities.

    In terms of some of the questions and discussion already raised here I think that the term “public art” becomes problematic. It’s often times used to denote art that is purely object based and that which is “placed” within what is broadly termed a “public” space. But we are all in this because we want for a sustainable long term solution to social, economic and even political issues. I guess my question is why not look to it as a socially engaged art or an art that creates a social change? Perhaps if we start to think of it that way, we would see art as a means of taking a stance and making actual change within cultural, educational and other systems that are players within “public” art. Also, I feel that by looking to define ourselves and our work within the boundaries of the art world only restricts how our work might be perceived by the community or even how artists perceive themselves because “Public Art” more often than not tends to be about “placement” and the “aesthetic”. How can one sustain something as subjective as the “aesthetic”? Is the aesthetic key to cultural production? Isn’t cultural production through an alternate mode, away from large cultural institutions like museums and galleries that get to contextualize and present “culture”, an important goal for us because serving communities at the most basic level is a key goal for most of us? PES is moving along the trajectory where we see our work being invested in creating an environment that would foster sustained creative thinking amongst communities gearing them towards becoming cultural producers themselves.

    Monday, August 8 at 1:04pm

    I can’t think of a more exciting or important conversation to be having. Having had a non-traditional,”outsider” status myself (I’m a self-described graffiti scholar,) and having taught public art to poor and working class individuals for a number of years now, I have to chime in.

    I have had the experience of spending a lot of time with students learning about “aesthetic” works that realized an artist’s vision, that at first were impenetrable to them and then became well worth the trouble (for at least some of them. I also have seen some of these students begin to view themselves as cultural producers by re-framing their own practices through studying socially- engaged art. I believe the whole gamut from individual aesthetic visions to social practice should continue,its all good, but more investment might be made by the “alternative” art spaces to support collaborations with key people beyond the art community and truly seek out collaborations that shape the work and the public-programming that surrounds it. Identifying the “key people” might be messy but implies putting in the time and care, and not shying away from content just because it might not seem like the next big thing…

    Monday, August 8 at 6:18pm


    No Longer Empty

    redefining public art through temporary site-specific exhibitions

    I couldn’t agree more that collaboration between all the groups involved in public or socially engaged art is critical. It would help pool resources, talent, funding and much more. That is one of the key things we would like to materialize from this conversation

    Monday, August 8 at 8:44pm

I think that to answer this question we first need to address the idea of permanence in public art. Communities and cities change, so why should the art in the middle of them remain the same? I grew up in Mexico City, which is surrounded by good and bad public art (from the murals to bad 1970s sculptures commissioned by corrupt politicians). The historical weight of the great public art can sometimes be too much to bear, and the costs of maintenance of all those works for a country who has limited funds for art have to be given priority over the possible new art that could be commissioned. The older a city is, and the richer its past, the more it is tied to restoring and maintaining that past. So even when the works are good (which is unfortunately not usually the case) the fact is that permanent art takes resources and space. I am all for historical landmarks and for protecting history, but I don’t think that in our era our mentality should be anymore of building things forever. To me the most elementary function and service that public art can offer is the possibility of it adapting or giving way to the new generation when this one deems important or necessary to rebuild and recreate their own, new cultural landscape.

Monday, August 8 at 5:20pm


    No Longer Empty

    redefining public art through temporary site-specific exhibitions

    agree 100%. Monuments are out and permanent structures with them. Even if a work is commissioned for a public space, I think it should be time limited. The nomadism of NLE has its challenges – what happens when we leave, what do we leave behind – and we don’t have all the answers to that. But fossilizing public art is not the answer – preservation belongs to the realm of the museum world and a dialogue of acquisitions could be beneficial here.

    Monday, August 8 at 8:47pm


    Matthew Carbone

    Architectural Photographer

    My initial reaction to reading this was shock and horror. Public art should be good enough to stand the test of time and become monuments, integrated into the culture of their place.

    Why take that away and seek only temporance?

    Millenium Park, Chicago; perfect example. The Cloud Gate, Crown Fountain have become part of the institution of Chicago.

    London Eye, London; while not “art” it was a public amentity that was planned only as a temporary structure and it too has become an iconic piece of the London culture.

    Then, I realized this might be a selfish desire grown out of the loss of not being able to see so many works because of the laws of time and place. The Gates in Central Park, London’s Serpentine Pavillions, Burnham Pavillions in Chicago, and countless others…

    I also realized that we were looking at different avenues for public art. I’m referencing large scale public works that should continue to get support, funding, and an expectation of permance and intregration into a city’s culture. This is very different than the what NLE does and a large percentage of most of the art world.

    With that said, I largley agree with both of you that most public art should have a limited time on site. Each install has a mission – the oversized bear outside the Seagram Building should have a different “shelf life” than say an artist install at a vacant storefront because the underlining mission is different. It would be great if there was a city-art share program, that would give many of these works a new home after their time in one place has passed.

    NLE – you mentioned that preservation is for museum world. Before removing one of your art installations, do you document and record the process, and final install? It would be a shame to lose all trace of what was…

    Sunday, August 21 at 1:48pm

Its great that so many people, curators and artists and some public art administrators as well, are rethinking the role of the artist in the public. It is equally important that we are rethinking the art as object in public spaces. This is a great leap forward.
In this process of “reconsideration” is also critical that an artist working in the public be sensitive to the specific issues at the site.
This means that a site is more than a place to impose an artist’s concept or wonderful idea. It is an integration of the artist vision within a context that is not simply white walls but instead, a lively and complex place. An artist needs to have a dialogue with whatever public arena where she/he is working. What is then required is that there is a complexity of thinking about the site required of the artist to act as a “vehicle” that will give people who enter the site, a new understanding of place. In order for an artist to do this, i believe that the artist should think about issues that are more than the formal ones characteristic of plunking an object into a highly visible space.
While scale and other physical attributes of working as an artist are critical to making “good” work, it is also important to address the context of the place, what it is, where it is, who are the people who enter the space, and perhaps, the history of the place if that is appropriate. Surely these are the attributes of meaningful art in the public, regardless of whether it is permanent or temporary.
Artists whose work seem to be the most compelling, integrate these concerns into their work. It might not be immediately visible that these are woven into the fabric of the concept but as an artist working in the public as well as running a program currently at SVA dealing directly with these concerns, I am convinced that this kind of “thinking” about public space need to be addressed.
This is too often overlooked in exchange for an entertaining one liner (often high priced but not always) installed in a public space. There is nothing wrong with an art object, but it does not necessarily make for great work. Jaume Plensa’s work in Madison Park is a stand alone (and of course there are others) that i think really works as an object in the space. It does not take on board all the attributes of the community at the site. However, there is a kind of humanism in his work that seems to transcend and have an innate ability to communicate these concerns.
However, a lot of other temporary and permanent works feel completely out of context with place. I would say that that continues keeping a space “empty” of the resonance it could be activating.
Making work in the public for an artist is a dialogue with the complex and demanding layers of a site. And, as an artist I recognize the relationship and importance of of the administrators, curators, and the commissioners of this kind of work as we progress in the “rethinking” of art in public spaces.
It is exciting that we are discussing these issues together!

Tuesday, August 9 at 9:40am

    A couple of points to clarify: Percent for Art is based on a law (in New York City and in most other cities where it exists) and that law in New York doesn’t allow for temporary artwork because the funds are drawn from general obligation bonds for new construction projects. These funds have to be spent in a way that results in lasting public works. Some of the bonds require that new construction last at least five or seven years, but most that we’re dealing with through Percent for Art are for a minimum of 20 years. The funds our artists are using to produce their artworks are to be used for the artwork and an artist fee only. There needs to be a permanent outcome in terms of production. If there is a socially-engaged process (Tattfoo Tan completed a project called S.O.S. Pledge – S.O.S. = Sustainable Organic Steward – at PS 971 in Brooklyn) built into the production, we are thrilled, but we also cannot require that an artist work that way, and I can think of a number of incredible artists we’re currently commissioning who wouldn’t participate if they were required to solicit community input. How much time a commissioned artist spends in a community is entirely up to that artist as long as the artwork is relevant to the site, or site-specific in some way.

    Along the lines of discussion above about the importance of community engagement (which I am not opposed to), I wonder if any of you see a difference between the responsibilities/accountabilities of an architect and an artist to a public that will experience the built outcome of either producer. For some reason, Percent for Art artworks which are mere one percent (sometimes more, but usually less) of a construction budget are more highly scrutinized by community groups than the architectural projects the artworks are part of. Why is this so? I think the idea that communities should have input into art but not architecture presumes a lower professional standard for art than architecture.

    As for Pablo’s comment about permanence not being of this era, there are many artists who are excited by the prospect of creating a public project that will become part of the City’s built environment. Personally I’m not committed to the idea that an artwork should last forever in a given space, but there is a question about what happens after its removal. What does it mean to remove an artwork from a site that becomes meaningful to those who use and move through the site? Are we left with an empty platform for the artwork? Who will step in a fund the next artwork to be placed there? What kind of community response unfolds when public design is disrupted because an artwork has expired?

    Tuesday, August 9 at 11:44am


    No Longer Empty

    redefining public art through temporary site-specific exhibitions

    Sarah – I think you bring up an extremely interesting point about the relation of art and architecture to a given site. I think we can all think of instances where an architect’s ego or that of the commissioner of the building is of much more concern than how that building relates to its surroundings or even its function. How many new museum constructions prove to be more about the architecture and design than as a place to serve the exhibition of art?! I wonder though if that implies though as you say “presumes a lower professional standard for art than architecture” that there is a felt need to involve the “end user” for want of a better term. For me the passionate debate about art and site is because of the very power an art object can have -it stirs feelings, deep responses – whether for good or bad. Sometimes I have to catch myself and qualify that in what I often work toward as a curator – that relation of the exhibition to site, community, history et al as a starting point – does not translate as a desire for provincialism or “local” art. I think Anita Glesta puts it very well in her comments above and in the example she gives of the Madison square installation. It’s the human connectivity that both involves and transcends site.

    Friday, August 12 at 12:07pm


Project For Empty Space

Art in abandoned urban spaces with a focus on community building and art education

Im glad that we brought up the idea of permanence. I think its more important that the ‘idea’ and the ‘vision’ that most of us have spelt out here should be the only permanent aspect while the way in which it materializes should be an act in flux. By that I mean that I don’t want what has happened to graffitti and street art to happen to what is broadly termed Public Art (and Ill just refer to it by that name for this discussion). We have seen how the commercial and institutional world has contextualized graffiti and street art like a genre and presented it in neat shows and contexts, taking away some of the rawness of it all. I feel that there are some fairs and festivals atleast in NYC that are bringing together “public art” practices, although its really at a nascent stage but could potentially grow. Its probably because being contextualized by institutions gives everything a sense of permanence and maybe even validity. But this can be a little isolating for the communities because what we do can be so complex and needs so much planning and logistics that takes time and effort because atleast for PES we are looking at building long term (permanent) relationships with the community and the city. From our own experience we were part of a festival recently and we were working with a performance artist who was to use our lot for his piece. Unfortunately, this didn’t take place because the community, who had no idea there was a Festival taking place, got completely intimidated at the idea that there was this ‘art’ event going on in their neighborhood and they had no idea about it. And our proximity to their homes made them get a bit confrontational which eventually led to the cancellation of the performance. Mind you this was the same community that embraced us when we first moved in and created our first installation – which was inspired by the community. They hung out with us, gave us feedback, told us that the work and its colors reminded them of home in South America and so on..They really took a liking to us but this incident showed us how fragile these relationships are. And we took full responsibility for it because it was a learning lesson for us. That we can get so carried away perhaps by the short term goals that the pressures of being a part of this festival and that, can make you lose sight of your long term goals for which your working so very hard towards. Im sure it happens to all organizations because we all don’t go by a how-to manual in our work!

So I would love to know what everyone thinks should be the role of established institutional systems like the museum, because in essence it is a public institution. And one that is not merely just contextualizing the past but is actively shaping what goes on right now and they seem to be very interested in Public Art. And whether their vision, because more often than not they are so much more well funded than small initiatives like ours, could come in the way of the work we are doing if they are not tuned into the community at every level or can it assist in a way thats mutually beneficial, deeper and more long term (permanent)? And by long term I don’t mean having a festival for a week annually.

Tuesday, August 9 at 12:34pm

I really enjoyed this conversation. Thanks to NLE for this initiative. I apologize for my English, that maybe will be not the best. Anyway I would like to participate to the conversation bringing my point of view. I’m an italian artist working on environmental installations, and in these months I’ll be resident at LMCC here in NYC.
The most of what I read in the topics had a curatorial sight. It is interesting, but I would like to make a distinction between which are the priorities for a curator and for an artist.
I think it’s correct if curators consider all the implications (relation with community, accessibility, clarity, involvement of the public) as the main task. I think that’s their task, connecting the work as well as possible to the context.
From the artist point of view, maybe, the rapport between public and private, on the other hand, is not so clear. Sometimes the problem for what concerns the artist is not how does the artwork works in the context, but simply: is the artwork working? You know that a very small painting can be so strong. So what makes it private instead of public? Is it only the venue or the place? So if we build a special pavilion in front of the Seagram building to host a small oil on canvas made by Chagall donated by a private collector to the City of New York, it’s enough to made this work a public artwork? Surely Chagall didn’t made it to be a monument, but, it can become it, depending on the power of the work and the way we exhibit it. When I say “power of the work” I mean its capability to be deeply significant for an incredibly large audience. I think that this is the main task for an artist. After that there are a lot of consequences that involves the artist as well, but also other figures, as curators, critics or architects. So, the same small oil on canvas, can became a monument in front of the Seagram building or in the middle of the Kenyan savanna. It depends on the way it is exhibited. Could be very fascinating to imagine a small concrete construction, a sort of snail shell, in the middle of the African nowhere, built to contain a small oil on canvas made by Chagall and describing the dream of a russian shtetl. This operation could have the same power of a stargate for the Kenyan shepherd, who passes there. I know I’m exagerating, but you really think that a Chagall work couldn’t be so strong and hypnotic for a Kenyan shepherd as it is for us?
What I mean is that sometimes an artist creates a work that is completely aware of all the layers which it is connected to. (I try to consider everything in my works). Some other times, is the curator who has to make of a simple artwork a public artwork, sometimes involving other figures (the same artist, maybe stimulating him to a further reflection on the public impact of his work, or an architect, or an anthropologist, etc…).
In this spring it happened something interesting to me. I made an installation inside ad abandoned building. It was an old watertower inside an hospital built in Rome in 1928. The work was a very intimate work. The public was allowed inside only one by one. Anyway this work became the most discussed work in Rome in this year. So in the end the work (a very light intervention) monumentalized the building (after a month a lot of people identified that building unknown before, with the installation), so that some Italian museum directors told to me and the Volume Foundation which produced the installation to keep it permanent. It was impossible because the building was inside an hospital area, but anyway, the fact that some critic suggested it, made me thought about how a community (a large community, made by critic, artlovers, or also the workers of the hospital who really loved the work) could elect their monuments even if those works where born with a completely different task.
So, in this case that work wasn’t connected to any specific community. It was a work about the end of humanity, without any consideration of the neighborhood, the city, or the country. But people felt it as a monument and hoped it could stay permanently.
After that intervention I started a work in an abandoned factory occupied by gipsies and immigrants from South America. It was in Rome. I was hired by an association and I thought to build a huge telescope, made with oil barrels. My idea was that through that telescope those people could watch the moon as a next frontier fo immigration. All of them were travelling all over the world looking for a freedom they don’t find and maybe doesn’t exist. So my telescope should be a sort of fool evidence of hope. Anyway I started to build it helped by the whole community. And during the construction (it required three weeks) they started to understand the sense of the operation, so that they decided to put it on top of the tower of the factory in a place that could be seen from everyplace in that suburb. This decision required a very hard additional work, because the tower was 82 feets tall and there was only an iron ladder stair to reach the top. Anyway they figured out the telescope as a sort of flag of their will to be free in the ghetto in which they were. So, in a very different way and context from the other, also this work, born as private, became public by the will of a community.
Now stop talking about me. I want only asnwer to some topic I read here.
Anita wrote that wrote a site is more than a “place”. Yes, it is, but what I think is a site is a “material”. A material has to be known. It has its laws, as iron, water, wood. If you don’t know its laws you can’t really work it. So it is the artist responsibility to know very well the materials he thinks to work with.
Anyway another distinction that I would like to suggest to this conversation is between “public art” and “monument”. You know these concept are not the same and the most of the times they are nor similar. So I agree when Manon says how important is the temporary work. She knows I made in Rome a project similar to NLE. Anyway working temporarily or permanently has the same difference you can see between writing a newspaper or writing “The man without qualities” of Robert Musil. Both practices are important, but they are very different. The temporary practice (as journalism) let us see the daily present, the monumental shows the entire curve of a generation. Anyway as for the Musil masterpiece, it was not Musil who decided his book was a monument, it was its geneation itself.
Last thing. In her first topic Manon says that a work shoud reflect a community. I think that it the work that shoud reflect the community, but it is the device that let the people in the work that has to be aware of the specific language of the community. The work is the work. Is the bridge that has to be built according to the specific morphology of the land.
I’m sorry if I wrote so much.
Thank you for your attention.

Tuesday, August 9 at 4:24pm


    No Longer Empty

    redefining public art through temporary site-specific exhibitions

    some great points here Gian Maria. I think the division of functions here between the artist – whose concern must remain with the creation of the work as art and the contextualising role of the curator are interesting distinctions. The projects you mention in the hospital and the telescope/immigration installation are the best of all possible outcomes – the public claims the work and wants to make it permanent. I would also love to realize the painting in a shell in the Kenyan savanna. Any sponsors out there?! I like the notion of site as material – I am not sure I fully understand all its implications but I’ll dwell on it. Also want to add the same reservations to your quote of mine “that a work should reflect a community.” that I expressed in my response to Sarah. That site specificity is the germination of our exhibitions in No Longer Empty – the themes for an exhibition come from our research of a given space – but it cannot be a mandate for each work.

    Friday, August 12 at 12:28pm

Sara, your point is well taken: it is true that many artists are excited about making works that may permanently become part of the fabric of the city ( I certainly would be one of them), and it is definitely a remarkable fact that a city like New York makes architects and developers by law to think about the presence of art in the city. The question for me is how can we assess on whether the art that we produce today will be wanted by the future generations, and how can we ensure that this art won’t represent a burden to them for maintenance: how we can think about that variable when we make new public art. This may not be an issue for many works, but it is for some. When I walk around New York or other cities it is interesting to see a large amount of works from the 70s and 80s in different parts of the city; some of them are quaint, some are still wonderful and others quite frankly I doubt many people would like to keep around. They form a quite random assortment. They remind me of when you look at an issue of Artforum of 20, 30 years ago, and you encounter some familiar names, some vaguely familiar and many completely unknown. Imagine if one random issue of that magazine of that period was a frozen museum that could not be taken down ever.

Perhaps I am wrong, but I guess what I am proposing is not to obliterate any possibility of permanence, not to create a city without a past, but to think of ways in which public art could evolve into being possibly a permanent fixture but also mobile or adaptable if need be.

Tuesday, August 9 at 9:39pm


Art in Odd Places (AiOP)

Aiming to stretch the boundaries of communication in the public realm

Each year in October, Art in Odd Places (AiOP) produces a thematic public art festival along 14th Street from Avenue C to the Hudson River in New York City. Through this annual programming, AiOP works to support new ways of experiencing otherwise familiar environments through site-specific installations, social and spatial interventions, video and audio projects, performance and new media – all with an eye towards the particularities of city dwelling. For AiOP, public space is social space, and artworks can be actively integrated into the conventions and exchanges that take place in this realm.

I often find conversations about the role of art in public places framed within the ideas of usefulness and service. While these aspects can certainly be important elements of successful public artworks, I would gently suggest that by continuing to promote the idea that service and practical functionality are necessarily an implied purpose of public art, we run the risk of eclipsing the importance of artistic intent and vision, which should also remain central to the success of an artwork. In the consideration of projects for AiOP, we strive to represent the full gamut of socially-engaged projects, from those offering opportunity for multiple authorship and democratic outcomes for localized concerns, to others that might feature the artist in more of a leading role, with the community in the position of participants, rather than collaborators.

Also, to chime in on the question of permanence and adaptability in public art, I would point towards the Bruce High Quality Foundation’s “Public Sculpture Tackle” project as a radical example of how one might re-think the shifting relationship to permanent art installations. Of course, for BHQF, their project was more of an absurdist critique on public art’s inherent “design of defense” and the resulting failure of effective interaction rather than a clear-cut proposal for literal or figurative mobility in public art. But this kind of critical (and temporary) intervention with a permanent work may be an interesting model to pursue in the continual interpretation of permanent commissions.

Juliana Driever
Art in Odd Places

Wednesday, August 10 at 8:54am

    I’m happy to read your comments, Juliana. In my role commissioning artists for the City, I am constantly trying to defend the autonomy of the artist’s vision from the idea that the artwork must justify its existence by fulfilling a second or third role, in addition to being art. For instance, when we commission artists in the construction of new public schools, we often have panelists (usually from the Department of Education or construction project managers) preferring the artist whose work can double as a teaching tool. School commissions are no longer budgeted as 1%, (another story for another discussion) so why should an artwork funded at such a low level be expected to add to the curriculum? Isn’t the whole school set up for teaching and learning?

    The question I keep asking is why can’t public art be art? If it’s good work, it should hold up, and if there are different opinions about its aesthetic value, all the better that public art triggers public discussion about what constitutes a successful work of art.

    I agree with the comments about permanence, that permanence as a criteria for a commission excludes many kinds of art, and this is unfortunate. That a large portion of public artwork is drawn from capital construction budgets means that the laws governing how capital construction funds spent are on design and construction also apply to the artwork connected to the larger construction project. I don’t mean to beat a dead horse (or the hero on horseback) but Percent for Art as a model is not likely to change anytime soon. Believe me, I’ve tried to convince panelists that we should commission a time based artwork with a permanent element and call it capitally-eligible. Arts professionals and civil engineers on the panel were in agreement that performative artworks couldn’t be supported by our process.

    Wednesday, August 10 at 3:03pm

A mentor of mine used to say, “Without art, we’d just be monkeys with car keys.”

Art in public places contributes to the sacred, profane, mundane, and extraordinariness of human existence-just like everything else we create.

It ranges from compelling to boring; fun to annoying.

And, doggone it if it isn’t one of the most consistently reliable political lightening rods known to humanity?

In a democracy, that’s invaluable.

Wednesday, August 10 at 10:58am

“I have some problems with the term public art; the other term is art in public spaces and there is obviously a discourse around that. The problem I have with the term public art is that it implies a degree of social engineering, that it is something that is good for you, like medicine or public housing. But at the same time it has a certain freedom, a free availability, the public domain.”
Richard Deacon, interviewed by Pier Luigi Tazzi, October 1994, Turin, Italy

Art in western societies has come to represent the core value systems of the educated class, which in America constitutes only 10-20% of the general population. Art has come to this end because it is a fundamentally leisure activity, and one that has in the meantime acquired the social stigma that art is therefore not “work” and can be of no social “good”. Furthermore, art is not “fair”. An artist absorbs a significant opportunity cost to represent their value systems to the world, which, assuming the work is any any good, they will recoup when the work is acquired by a private interest somewhere down the line. But it stands to reason that the people who can afford to be artists, become artists, while a vast portion of society simply can’t.

Public Art faces a similar quandary, since it must be financialized right from the very beginning, and so it has come to pass that many public artworks are under-written by private entities, who then write the expenditure off the books as a contribution to charity, which are non-taxable. So Public Art can actually remove wealth from the public sphere. Additionally, there is the problem of the “voice” of the artist. Is it authentic? Is it autonomous? Who is it really speaking up for? How will the deleterious effects of gov’t-sponsored privatism be white-washed out of the local narrative this time around? What about the artist’s ‘role’ in society–why doesn’t the artist seem to realize how privileged they really are? No wonder the subject falls under such intense subjective scrutiny. Of all this I would merely note that discussion is also a leisure activity, and leave the topic at that.

But I am an artist myself, and so I feel it is my responsibility to acknowledge the hard edges on this issue. There is a significant amount of literature devoted to the subject of the subjective ‘worth’ of art in public spaces, but perhaps the best example of my point is “Tilted Arc”, a massive Cor-Ten steel sculpture measuring 120 long by 12 feet high, which was commissioned in 1970 by New York’s own Art-in-Architecture program and completed in 1981 by the sculptor Richard Serra. The work was intended to ‘activate’ the space it occupied, by making the viewer “aware of himself and of his movement through the plaza. As he moves, the sculpture changes. Contraction and expansion of the sculpture result from the viewer’s movement. Step by step the perception not only of the sculpture but of the entire environment changes.” The commission set the city back a cool $175,000 American, and faced a massive amount of disapproval in the public sphere, who felt the sculpture was a monumental eyesore, an impedance to free movement within the plaza, and a graffiti attractant. Later litigation held up the assessment first made in the court of public opinion, and the work was soon dismantled, in the middle of the night, by Federal workers, in 1989.

What, if anything, has art learned from this much-publicized controversy? Serra felt that it was the artist’s duty to link art with a Constitutional narrative; it was his intention that by making people aware of arts’ place in society, public opinion would necessarily demand more in the way of cultural involvement rather than less. But clearly the so-called ‘public’ didn’t consider the ‘artist’s original intent and vision’ very important at all. Furthermore, if the original intention of the artist was truly to re-establish a common thread between institutional power and social welfare, then the artist himself was somewhat guilty of a few glaring sins of omission: Why COR-TEN plate steel (which valorizes industry at a time when industry was abandoning the city) and not glass instead, to signify transparency; why was the work not used to forge an at least symbolic connection with the steel-workers in the neighboring City of Brotherly Love that it helped to keep employed; what business is it of the artist to require the public to express an opinion about art’s role in the public sphere when the artist himself seems to have no opinion about the overall culture of opacity that governs how, why, and for whom a work of art is made? How can any work of public art lay authentic claim to an often-voiced social ideal that stands in such complete and stark contrast to the nature of its objective reality? Less obliquely, and since so much of what is produced in American culture depends on things like fair housing policies, how can cultural initiatives such as Art in Storefronts be used as a platform for addressing the extant cultural issues that have led us to, on one hand, greater cultural diversity, and on the other hand, increased concern over the current intellectual situation that a work of art has knowingly set about challenging, that is, presuming it has any incentive to be concerned about, or even aware of the situation at all.

The problem with public art in the 21st century is manifold and somewhat wicked: there currently is no market in alleviating inequality; alleviating inequality is the only way art will become a strong cultural expression of mass significance; the modernist fundamentals under-girding our civilization are proving to be fatally unsound; and because bad news is unpopular, no socially relevant work of art can approach these issues critically while still remaining populist enough to successfully re-frame–social engineering–the cultural narrative to a more 21st century, globalist perspective. Serra’s problem is now our problem.

I’m reminded of another work by Damien Hirst: “For the Love of God”, and of popular culture’s reaction to the piece, which came down to why on earth someone would pay $100,000,000 for a diamond-encrusted fetish of a human skull. They were not concerned about what the piece meant, overall, or of it’s ‘function’–that is, there was no dissent concerning the work’s subjectivity, but that the concern was that artist had clearly paid no attention to the overall context into which his work was to be situated, and that he had been handsomely rewarded for his willful ignorance of this. Similarly, the grim reality of our age is such that while the debt ceiling debate was going on in Washington, the ratio of television ads was 9-to-1 on the “don’t lift the debt ceiling” side of the issue. The intellectual situation of the day therefore demands that public art be as confrontational to the cultural forces working against the public good as art has to been at critical junctures in the recent past–that is, it no longer makes any sense to contain the field of debate to what service public art provides, but to instead begin considering whether or not it is in the public’s service for art to again go to where other forms of cultural expression currently fear to tread. Since the inclusion of art in a public space almost always constitutes a political act, and since the intrusion of the private sector upon the public sphere seems to be the dominant paradigm of the day, it seems to me that an analysis of this relationship represents the most logical way forward for an artist in the 21st century.

Wednesday, August 10 at 3:10pm

    I would like to link Gian’s idea of ‘site’ as a ‘material’ – which an artist needs to understand (I almost wrote ‘master’ and then self-censored!) and respond to – to the issue of permanent/temporary art commissions.

    I recently commissioned a public art programme in the UK, with funds dedicated to ‘capital spend’. I found the experience extraordinarily frustrating, and realised that (in this case at least) the emphasis on a permanent product meant the whole project happened the wrong way around: starting with the end product rather than starting with the site as a material to be worked with and responded to. Maybe it’s idealistic to expect investment (particularly from within the built environment profession?) in work that has no predetermined outcome, but I can’t help feeling that commissioning from a position of ‘we want someTHING in this particular area’ is too narrow a place to begin. I’m not against permanent pieces per se, I just think that the decision to make and place them should come from a process rather than be decided beforehand.

    I’m not sure how things stand in the States, but in the UK funding is often brought in for public art/art in the public realm using the terms raised and discussed here: ‘reflecting a community’, ‘serving a community’, ‘contributing to the identity of a place’. Curators/commissioners/managers are left trying to balance creating space for an artist to work with integrity, with meeting more socially-orientated (engineered?) outcomes, and I can’t help feeling that sometimes both ‘sides’ end up so compromised that the process and product do not achieve their real potential.

    It’s an obvious question, but I think it is so important to ask ‘which public’ and ‘which community’, and accept that there are multiple publics/communities who are almost inevitably in conflict. I write this from England, where we are seeing riots breaking out across the country, seemingly fuelled by widespread disaffection and disconnection from ‘society’. I am not at all saying that art should, or even can, ‘solve’ such issues (which are deeply embedded in the politics, economics, inequalities etc.) but if art claims to be ‘public’ (rather than just on display outside as Gian also discusses), I do think such things are at least part of the palette.

    Wednesday, August 10 at 5:10pm


    Susanne Bosch


    The art historian Miwon Kwon said: “Public art practices have experienced significant shifts over the past thirty years. The three paradigms can be schematically distinguished: art in public places … art as public spaces… and art in the public interest (or “new genre public art”)… (more under Public Art and Urban Identities

    What is obvious is, these shifts have not eliminated the earlier practices, but exist in co-existence – all at once.

    I would like to raise some ideas of “public” in a western democracy:
    We live in representative demoncracies, where we elected someone to hear and take care of our needs. The American critical theorist Nancy Fraser frames the limits of these democracy in our late capitalist societies. According to her, the conception of the democratic public sphere was never fully realized in practice due to numerous reasons based on gender and class. The public nowadays is fragmented into “a mass of competing interest groups” and therefore constituted by conflict. (And the UK is a great example where these young people rioting right now to totally feel left out).

    I live since 6 years in pretty dysfunctional society in Northern Ireland, divided by sectarianism, class, etc… What makes living and working as an artist so interesting here, is that one understands a lot about public when the public is not like expected or wished for: When it is not embracing diversity with curiosity and if citizens identify more with the role of the warrior than the role of a civilian.

    If we acknowledge that the public space is not (only) an extended gallery for some (commissioned) artists who happen to get permissions and funding (the representative ones who get to be creative), then a maybe more appropriate culture for a democracy would be one of a culture ‘belonging to citizens’ with values associated with participation, negotiations and reciprocation- responsibilities as well as rights (and not only the masses consuming the creativity of few). If you do not have the citizens participating in society, the narrative in a society is created by those in power. If citizens participate, the narrative is their own. A participatory (civil) culture allows us to see ‘self’ in ‘other’.

    So, for public art making I think it introduces the need to negotiate and communicate. Communication and negotiation become essential parts of the art process and outcome; they are part of the aesthetic texture of the piece.

    For an artist it means to make public what he/she aims to do and somehow seek for an approval by the wider group of people inhabiting the site in consideration.

    I know it sounds maybe scary for us artists, but I think it makes all the difference in respecting that other people have as much rights as we have in expressing their ideas.

    I also think commissioned as well as self-initiated pieces should not be scared to put work out for discussion before it goes up. It might mean at times that a piece will not go up (or taken down again…The Serra piece is a wonderful example of the power of people), but the process of civil debate will be fulfilled definitely as part of the piece. And I believe this civil debate, if seen as part of the public artwork, it a tremendous piece of work! Open for discussion is, how it is conducted, how it is documented, how it is read in the expert (art) context.
    (P.S. Some of the thoughts and terminologies I learned from my former boss, Declan McGonagle, currently Director of the NCAD Dublin)

    Thursday, August 11 at 4:14am


    No Longer Empty

    redefining public art through temporary site-specific exhibitions

    Susanne – I think your quote at the beginning of your post is a useful reminder of the many, many practices co-existing in the field yet not often distinguished as we talk about art in the public sphere.

    Both you and Sarah Butler refer to the ongoing unrest in England. NPR was conducting interviews with some of the people participating in the unrest and the interviewer asked a young man what he hoped to achieve by such random acts of violence against property and businesses. The reply was “well you wouldn’t be talking to me now if I wasn’t part of this.”
    I was reminded of those words when i read your suggestion that “maybe a more appropriate culture for a democracy would be one of a culture ‘belonging to citizens’ with values associated with participation, negotiations and reciprocation-” It’s no doubt utopian but a very needed approach. And it is not just the so called under classes who don’t control their own narrative. I’m wondering whether some of the work you have been doing along these lines in Ireland can be seen and shared in this dialogue

    Friday, August 12 at 1:35pm

    I totally agree with Susanne about the feeling that an artist can have for a city or a site. Now I’m in residency in New York, but before having this possibility I decided, after four years in wich I spent some month each year in the Big Apple, to quit with NYC, a place in wich is supposed every artist should be if they want to climb the system. I decided to move to Naples, a very complicate city, far from the market and from the spotlights. The reason is easy: my material is the site, and there I found a very good material for my art. So, after this residency I will move to Naples to start a new long-term project (after the one in the hospital which was the tenth part of a six years project dedicated to Rome). I say this answering to Sarah about the topic of the “site” as a “material”. I think that this definition is right if we assume that there are artist who use this material and other artists who simply don’t use it. “Site” or “space” is not a material that can be worked by everyone. I don’t use video, for example, nor paint. And it has nothing to do with the techinque. I could learn to use video, but anyway it will never be my language. Any artist has a language, and each language has its elements. Sites are elements for artist who talk a specific language.
    I perfectly understand the problem that occurred to Sarah in her recent commission. Sometime when an artist receives a proposal just tries to adapt his work to the proposal, but often it doesn’t works. There are a lot of commissions in Italy or here in U.S. in which the result is disappointing. It was easy to start, but it was hard to reach a good conclusion. A commission often is a temptation for an artist. They tries also if they are not sure they can make the difference. During the Biennale in Venice, there are a lot of works on the streets. Do you think those are public art? No, it is only urban furnishing. Anyway I can understand when a big foundation ask to an artist that really doesn’t use the “site” as a “material”, to built a huge sculpture in front of the entrance of a certain building, having already solved all the problems of authorizations, budget, etc and the artist feels that he has a good chance and tries without thinking that in the most of the cases his work will be only a furniture (noting to do with art). In the end I really like when, on the other hand, without any commission, a work starts in a very difficult situation, when everybody are suspicious, and you should ask thousands of times permissions, and sometimes you try to start whithout having them waiting for someone who can understand, and in the end in the middle of the indifference and oppositions born a miracle which is able to amaze everyone. I think that the institutions which can make commissions should be able to intercept these practices that can create an absolute and free work of art, more that having a neo-Renaissance aptitude and continuing commissioning fountains made by artists. This is my personal and absolutely non-polemic point of view.

    Saturday, August 13 at 2:20pm

In terms of permanence vs. temporary work I’ll definitely play the both/and card and I appreciate Sarah’s frustration at art having to do all the heavy lifting such as placing a work at an educational institution and then being asked for it to double as a teaching tool..I think that those of us who are educators as well as artists,try to chase every opportunity when there is a public dialogue about public art and I drag as many of my working class students as I can with me-though its true they don’t have much leisure time…to create bridges …And some begin to re-frame their time at work through the lens of inspirational works. After studying Ukeles for example, one of my electrician students has created a manifesto and a call to fellow workers to start a project that deals with the incredible amount of waste on a construction site..Our class is done,but she is researching how this can be done and trying to build community around the idea..which now might have more juice now as “art”

I guess I am interested in ways that the excitement (and possible throngs of young art students who might pursue an MFA in Social Practice at Queens College in the future with its politically engaged faculty) about public practice these days might actually be brought to bear on addressing inequities as Kimanthe mentions..

Thursday, August 11 at 9:17pm

    Barrie, I take pleasure in guiding Percent for Art’s panel process in such a way (I wouldn’t call it heavy lifting) so that we are evaluating finalists’ proposals and past works on the basis of artistic integrity (whatever that might mean in a given location where we’re commissioning), rather than their potential to deliver services that the City is delivering elsewhere, through other programs. I’m in favor of social practice and socially-engaged art when it effects change (or when it consciously changes awareness), but I question the artistic license that is being taken up to act as a social worker or educator. Many artists are successful in implementing projects that blur art and other disciplines well, but why should an artist replicate community service that is probably happening nearby, through an organization or group that knows how to do it and knows the community?

    I really don’t mean this is a tirade against social practice, but I think in the realm of the kinds of commissions we’re asked to facilitate, it’s important that the artwork is visible as art and not as something else.

    My main criticism of merging public art and social practice is that the social practice component might be understood as a buffer for the art itself, as if art requires an apology. Many times our Percent for Art commissions are in locations where the art is already a buffer for something the community didn’t want, for example two artworks commissioned for Newtown Creek Water Pollution Control Plant in Greenpoint: George Trakas’ Nature Walk and Vito Acconci’s The Edge of Neighborhood/The Edge of the Plant.

    Friday, August 12 at 12:20pm

Use and context of the public space are the landscape which determine permanence and theme of public art displays in open spaces, plazas, squares, and parks.

Temporary public displays have a different sociological function than permanent public art work. William Whyte the sociologist and founder of the foundation by the same name in New York City has an interesting research history on art in public space.

In France the temporary publc art display with shock value or that which elicits diverse emotions has become a common public art feature. Example: the contemporary and unusual displays at the palace of Versailles. France 24 news interviews capture the full-range of emotion from both art experts and lay person viewers.

Another example is Christo and Jean-Claude who are known for their public art including their major display in Central Park. Vast range of emotions and opinions from the public and Central Park users.

Permanent public art is typically commissioned and preconceived, i. e., “art for public spaces” and blends with the landscape or theme of the landscape as sculpture in a botanical garden. This is not usually the case with public art such as the photo of the temporary exhibit at Seagram’s Plaza.

Any public art whether permanent or contemporary is intended to connect people to the place, although the emotional cause and effect is different.

Saturday, August 13 at 11:51am

Having the benefit of joining the conversation at this later stage, I dare reiterate the obvious: there are so many salient threads, one could argue process rather than result needs to be emphasized. Still, I’m interested in what, if anything, will result from our discussion.

A public context inevitably raises questions about power. These questions are well-trod, existential ground. Who has the right to assert their ideas or opinions into the public purview? Who has the right make meta-determinations? What resources are being used? Who is funding their use? How do underlying conditions (economic, ethnic, educational etc.) support or deny public expression? Such questions are woven through the production of public space — and all of its subsequent uses — they connect artist, organizer, audience, academy, bureaucracy, laity. Not necessarily on agreeable terms. Quality and effectiveness (the choice of terms is specific) feed back into a dynamic process. Success is often self-perpetuating.

Under the auspices of Art Street Window, I oversaw thirty installations in vacant storefronts from 1996 to 2001. Each artist had a teeny tiny budget; the emphasis was on autonomy of expression rather than integrating with or reflecting community. Generally speaking, the project was embraced and escaped the extreme public backlash of higher profile commissions (Dennis Oppenheim’s Blue Shirt proposal being an example of the latter). More recent projects have focused on public commemoration and historicity; authorship and authority; individual agency and communal interests.

The term “public” seems to imply at least a degree of homogeneity, which simply doesn’t exist (except as the scary utopian notion that Richard Deacon points out in the quote referenced by kimanthe kithika). The reason that art, when publicly funded or displayed, is a lightning rod (thank you, Porter, for stating what everyone tacitly come to terms with) has something to do with competing demographics within the larger notion of public. I live in Milwaukee, WI, home to the Bronze Fonz and Santiago Calatrava’s first major building commission in the States (which functions as much like a monumental art work as it does an enclosure for other’s art). Fans of one are seldom fans of the other, outspoken fans of one are even less likely to be fans of the other. It’s is a banal observation and I guess that’s the point, divisiveness is as likely as agreement. If there is a question about how people are being served, one must subsequently ask, which person, which group of people?

Personally, I value arts ability to confront and disrupt — and I appreciate connections made as a result of such challenges. But I should probably qualify that my interpretation of confrontation is subtle and layered. I quickly lose interest in confrontation for its own sake; reflexivity is usually a plus. So I also appreciate kimanthe’s comments that locate the practice of art — and discussions about it — under a Marxist/Darwinian lens.

I wholeheartedly agree with shifting the notion of permanent away from an object on the street. The proliferation of temporary art projects seems welcomed by everyone. More projects, quicker time frames, smaller budgets — without the red tape and production costs associated with “permanency,” artist’s net gains have probably increased. Certainly, there are many more players in the arena, which makes sense when that arena is public space. It also fits trends toward decentralization (the real, substantive effect of which would be another interesting question for discussion), over which the internet reigns supreme. Meanwhile and case in point, we have this discussion, which I thoroughly enjoy and look forward to seeing evolve.

Saturday, August 13 at 2:47pm

Just wanted to register some reactions to works of art presented to the public in recent times, and to make a tacit point, probably long ago covered. As we all can agree, public art — whether through public spectacle, monument, temporary installation, or action — at its best can create a node in the city fabric, and in the course of the lives of those who participate in it, as audience, creator or actor. At its best, it is the end of a journey, and a poignant reminder of the human in all of us, and in the world, whether by representing the imagination or the limits of our species. At its best, it participates in its time by marking it, and serves as an embodiment of the will in form.
At its worst, it is meaningless, self-serving, and instead of creating a node in the urban fabric, creates a black spot. It is the thing to avoid, or the landmark that one relegates to the trash-heap of the imagination. It is often the missed opportunity instead of the thing not to miss.
For many, including me, the Urs Fischer albatross is a disaster of titanic proportions. It has nothing to say to anyone, if anyone were listening.
The Andy Monument is on the border of both, at once a great testament to the man and his genius, at once a not so great example of sculpture.
A great piece of work from a few years past (there have been many in between, but this was a landmark example for me and the first that jumped into mind) was Janet Cardiff’s aural piece she did with Creative TIme, taking people on a narrative walk through part of Central Park. Unfortunately, the title of the work dropped out, but I remember the who progression and am very happy to have been part of it.

Wednesday, August 17 at 3:52pm


    No Longer Empty

    redefining public art through temporary site-specific exhibitions

    I really agree with the example of a great public project you cite – Janet Cardiff’s piece in central park. It made me experience the part in a new way – one that highlighted the most common sites there – the pigeons, the carts, the benches and bridges – and though temporary – it has really stayed with me and keeps working when I am in the park. The transient nature of the project is part of it’s power – it lives on in the memory. If we saw it everyday it would just blend into the landscape. Also, while public, it was a very private experience with the piece.

    Thursday, August 18 at 1:05pm

I visited the Ai Wei Wei Animal Heads this past spring, and was happy to see the amount of people viewing the work. Public art is an opportunity to educate and communicate, particularly to those who cannot afford to visit a museum. Art encourages the asking of questions, it connects unlikely persons, and in this case, makes Ai Wei Wei’s imprisonment by the Chinese government part of the dialogue. In some ways this sculpture presents the most complete case for public art.

Wednesday, August 17 at 4:09pm

Since I am fortunate enough to be teaching public art to many students who do not regularly frequent museums or galleries mainly due to lack of funds and leisure time,I’d like to reiterate that I would hate to see too great an emphasis on temporary works–especially if part of the stated goal is to widen the audience for art. My experience has been that if the (free) educational component around works is ramped up and a real reach-out is made,then the audience for public works is that much wider.
My students who are workers in the trades are perplexed as to why there are not more works that reflect their experience. They naturally are drawn to more aesthetic works as that is part of their experience because there is a high degree of perfection of form sought in their handiwork. Visiting this work opens up the conversation about spatial and then social and psychological surroundings of the work. I think our desire for more impermanent work should be considered outside the confines of our art circles if we are trying to broaden the audience for public art.
While I am excited at the prospect of an increase in activist/artist practices taking hold with the popularity of social practice,I am still more excited about the potential for more public programming about public work of all kinds..

Wednesday, August 17 at 11:42pm

This evening at SVA in NYC at 136 w 21 st (room 103,ground floor theater), I would like to invite anyone to the final presentations of the program which i coordinated this summer; Reconfiguring Site.
This was a six week residency (Please look up Reconfiguring Site on the web as i am having a problem pasting the link into this).
The Program is an intensive residency that is essentially a “think tank” about making art in the public. We have had a range of artists, architects, landscape architects, curators, and public art administrators as guest speakers in the program this summer (have a look at the great group online).
All of the guest speakers in the program represent a diversity of approaches to make art in the public, ranging from permanent to temporary, private/public, collaborative initiaves or solo works.
All of the issues that are being discussed on this blog site are issues which we have been tackling during these six weeks.
The participants in the program created viable proposals, both temporary and permanent for sites in NYC and/or, other parts of this country.
This evening, five participants will be presenting the proposals of the work they did during this residency.
The event is free and open to the public! Please attend and lend your insights at this forum this evening!

Thursday, August 18 at 8:21am


    No Longer Empty

    redefining public art through temporary site-specific exhibitions

    thanks for posting this. Will there be an archive of all the projects ( I can’t make it tonight). Will this program be repeated in the future?

    Thursday, August 18 at 1:08pm


Stefano Cagol


Public art is primarily a matter of fruition and of contents, besides site.
In fact around the public artwork, a public opinion develops, an extended point of view and of interest develops – indeed it must develop, if a work is really a public artwork. So much so that the definition of public art and of public opinion result to overlap in the appropriate definition of the Italian political scientist Giovanni Sartori: “An opinion is public not only because it owns to the public (is common among many, or the most), but also because it involves objects or topics that are public by nature: the general interest, the common good and, in essence, the ‘res publica’ .”

As we know, public art expresses itself in the external spaces, but the fact that art is located in urban places, parks, etc. etc. is not enough to define it public. It is public when it has the consciousness and humility to address to a broad, disparate, unexpected, unprepared audience, and not to only the usual elite of users of museums and galleries; and when it has the consciousness to fill this important role.
This consciousness must be owned first of all by both the artist and the curator as the main subjects (with different functions) in the realization of the work (which I would prefer to call ‘project’ to give the idea of a complex, not immediate production process).
The artist has to be aware of the wide fruition, and it doesn’t matter if he/she has been invited by a curator or if is winner of a competition realized by any institution for the creation of a work devoted to a community. What matters is the availability and communication-intensity of the intervention. This does not mean it should necessarily be read in an immediate way, but mainly cause and trigger questions, curiosity, new points of view and – maybe – even a few answers. In other words, to act as a stimulus for a variety of interpretations and reflections …

The public art project has to be a landmark, both geographical and of thought!

I don’t consider the duration of the work a discriminating element (whether temporary or permanent), but you should prefer medium or long duration. Maybe the formula I like best is that of semi-permanence for having the opportunity to get some feedbacks. In 2007 I was invited to propose a one-year-installation for the facade of the Flemish art center Beursschouwburg in the core of Brussels. It’s a twelve meters blinking neon installation which sets out in three phases FLU POWER FLU and characterizes the façade in a relevant way … Now, after four years, it is still there. This suggests that the intervention is loved and is effectively became a landmark (and a year would not have been enough) .

Of course we cannot agree with the idea of a public artwork as a – drop sculpture – . It cannot be an alien presence. Instead, when this happens, it means that something has gone wrong in the process of realization (by commissioner, curator, artist), and that the work – even if commissioned by the institutions – cannot merit the name of public art … but can just be added to the long list of bad artistic interventions in the squares, absolutely not useful for society.

On the contrary, the work has inevitably to aspire to fit into the reality of the place, into its fabric, its identity, being able to be accepted by its inhabitants and to attract their attention. To do so, it can refer to the different inspirations, topics, cues of the place itself, of its present, its history: this is the common thing, the ‘res publica’ Sartori speaks about.
Having recently won a public competition ($ 245,000), I decided to emphasize an element of the specific history of the territory that remains up to us and can become a symbol of the place . It is a permanent installation for the new gate of the motorway to the city of Trento in Italy, and I recalled the Roman origin of the city through TRIDENTUM, three complex pyramidical shapes of 16-tons of steel evoking and relating with the mountains that once gave it the name . The work is visible to all drivers entering / leaving the city – commuters, workers, tourists, inhabitants of the city: hundreds of thousands of observers per year.
Then I tell you about a project that is completely different, even if I started also this time from the history to trigger a reflection on the present of a city. It is POWER OF RECALL. POTERE DI RICORDARE, a total monument. In Vicenza, known as the birthplace of the Renaissance architect Palladio, with the aim to go metaphorically ‘beyond’ this identification, I asked its inhabitants – through an open call on the pages of local newspapers and TV – to propose me the names of people who lived or passed-by Vicenza and they feel important. There was the involvement of thousands of people, and the proposed names were then showed for six months on a new ‘monument’ in the historic Palladian square: a large LED board listing from the inventor of the microchip to Sara Maino Gandhi, from Carlo Scarpa to the actress Amy Adams who was born in the U.S. army base in Vicenza .
On other occasions I had a narrow connection with the reality of the place through its most recent history. Invited to Taranto, in Apulia, one of the most polluted cities because of one of the largest steelworks in Europe, I chose to realize a project composed by social involvement and semi-permanent installations (and a limited budget). I asked people to donate “sparkling objects against ash,” because the city is unable to react to the steelworks that at the same time kills and employs the entire city. Then I created another collective ‘monument’ with all those small, but symbolically powerful objects collected, while an overshadowing white flag enunciated in black the word CENERE: ASH sided by sparkling stripes! This lasted for five months .

In public art the ways and the tools don’t matter in the persecution of the ‘communication’.
Cis Bierinckx, director of the Brussels Beursschouwburg, defining the installation I made there, used the term “soziale Skulptur” social sculpture, which gives a good idea of a medium used for a purpose.
In fact, when the work is aimed at a wide audience, it has and must have also a social role, can and must influence society. It was born at the present time, is aimed at those who live in the present moment, is influenced and influences the present. Without arrogance, without imposing, without assuming the role of other social actors. I think that the artist, when he/she is doing public art, should be humble because it has a big responsibility that entails also to take stands, political and social!

Thursday, August 18 at 12:28pm

    Thank you for your interest and glad to be part of the conversation.
    I am hoping that the program will continue to run next year.
    I will keep the website going and will post a small video with snippets of the program from this past summer.
    I am also planning to write about it this fall.
    As you can see if you looked at the website, it was a very extensive and diverse list of speakers. The participants of the program both made works and were constantly exposed to different aspects, practices, and perceptions about making art in the public.
    For those of you in NY who can attend tonight at SVA, you will see some of the works that were made and mostly, have a sense of what we are all thinking about as far as teaching what it means to make work in the public.
    Not only what it means, but actually, how to do it effectivly which also means learning some tools. Tools such as grant writing, learning about contracts, learning to read from plan (for artists), as well as community liason. These all matter if one seriously wants to do a work, temporary or permanent, at a site. Besides the strength of the concept, there really are important properties that go hand and hand with the siting of the work that are seldom addressed in a comprehensive way in art schools.
    This residency program is a dialogue about public art that is obviously very fluid, as this blogsite is testimonial to!

    Thursday, August 18 at 3:31pm

A general question that comes to mind often – and seems relevant in this conversation – is why is there such a strong desire for viewers to see themselves in a public artwork? All through my experiences in curating artwork in public spaces (and now in a commissioning role too) there is a latent expectation that if a project is organized with community input, the resulting artwork should reflect the community. I am baffled by this. Personally, I would rather see an artwork that introduces viewers (and myself) to something else. It’s obviously a safe way to get local buy-in, but honestly, I am not looking to see myself in artwork. What if New York City museums only featured visual culture of New York City? It would be quite limiting.

Thursday, August 18 at 4:15pm

I have been reading some of the comments above and would like to share my own experience as a practicing artist.

Public work is an important contribution to all of us as human beings. It’s a place where artists have the opportunity to convey ideas and concepts to all kinds of individuals. It builds a relationship with the community and the piece becomes a part of the location.

In every single lighting sculpture I have done for a public space I take into consideration the perspective of the viewer.
My respect for the viewer drives me to give the best I can at that moment in my life.

I especially want to speak about my personal experience with 2 sculptures; Tapiz (No Longer Empty) and Uros House.
Uros House is a public work that was placed in the middle of Times Square during Armory Arts Week. It was amazing how many people were fascinated by the light coming from inside the sculpture. Everyone, and by that I mean hundreds of tourists, were taking pictures like it was a historical monument or a political figure. People sat on the bubbles, leaned on them, children crawled inside the house, played the bubbles like drums and even took some with them home thinking they were souvenirs :))
Tapiz in Harlem was special to me. Many of the homeless gathered around my work and put together sofas across the street every night to enjoy the light and video of the many faces being projected onto my work. Perhaps some of the faces were known to them from the community. Now that for me was amazing!!!

Thursday, August 18 at 7:15pm


    No Longer Empty

    redefining public art through temporary site-specific exhibitions

    which of course brings us back to the issue of how long a work in the public realm should remain. I know a lot of people in the East Harlem community were sad when the exhibition closed and your piece in particular, Grimanesa, was loved by the community. They saw themselves in the works and saw that they had been seen. Sarah R. – I agree that there is not often a need to see oneself in a public work – but in the context of the work that Grimanesa made of people who so rarely are more than statistics of urban blight, seeing themselves in “lights” was a cause for celebration.

    Saturday, August 20 at 12:36pm




Great conversation. Thank you NLE.

Regarding Permanent vs. temporary public art, I believe both are equally important. As I reflect on this, I look back at old cities, such as Florence or Sevilla and I find it wonderful as a viewer, to be able to perceive through its public art its history and Culture. Temporary Art allows more freedom in terms of materials and the possibility for more ephemeral forms of art to take place. In both cases you reach different number of audiences. I see the danger of this becoming a nuisance in the future but it can also represent the opposite, a landmark, a work that becomes part of the identity of a culture or community.

In terms of the function of art, some raised the point of public art as instrument for social change. I am all for art that sets out to do this. However, I believe that art that “really works” will create change within the collective unconscious of the community. The work may not specifically speak of social or political change, but it may communicate, perhaps at a tacit or spiritual level.

Last year, I had the opportunity of completing a permanent public work in East Harlem. While creating it, I often questioned its impact in the community, since it didn’t have a clear recognizable form, passers and residents often asked me what it was?… i would explain… and it sounds like this would be the end of it. However, the fact that ordinary residents were curious, that there was a response, that many would ask me about materials, process, and pose their interpretations or experience with art, etc. was and is for me very valuable. Now if this work was temporary, I don’t know if their would be available funds to replace the space with new work. I doubt it. It was already difficult to fund this work.

This leads me to ask: Why do most prominent artists whose Public works are commissioned, as Jaume Plensa, Anthony Gormley, Urs Fisher, Sara Sze, etc., are all placed in the most exclusive areas of Manhattan? Why aren’t any placed in the poorer neighborhoods of the city? where the audience have more limitations for experiencing high quality art? what communities are we really targeting when we speak of serving people?

Sara, it is relieving to hear you in your position of commissioner and curator to defend the artist’s vision. I believe this is very important. Art should not be forced into being an educative tool, the way some community leaders would like it to be, in a literal way. We all know that Good Art has the power to educate and create change without it being literal.
That is not to say that Public art that has a more active participation of the public is not valid, only that if it doesn’t, it does not mean it isn’t equally engaging.

Friday, August 19 at 2:07am


    No Longer Empty

    redefining public art through temporary site-specific exhibitions

    Thanks Barrie and Sara for sparking the discussion on public art and
    education. Like Barrie, we are also excited about public programming
    on public work and believe it all begins with a good discussion.

    During our last exhibition in the Lower East Side, members of our
    youth docents program approached passersby in the street and
    enthusiastically invited them to come inside to see the show and talk
    about the art. This experience led to inspiring conversations that
    connected unknown audiences from different backgrounds and ages
    through discovery and discussion.

    Arts Educator Maxine Greene states: “The arts create public space in
    which meanings are shared and perspectives expressed and clarified.”
    This is one of the essential aspects of education through art.

    In our exhibitions we aim to cultivate dialog among the public and engage in conversations with the visitors- the same dialog could take
    place in any given outdoor location between two people that just happen to stop and gaze at the large installation on their way home from work.

    A similar approach is taken in our educational programs. When youth
    experience art through inquiry, exploration and discovery their naturally curious minds are engaged. This type of experience initiates awareness, self-expression, heightens perception, evokes memory and personal connection. Youth learn through an open discussion about art that there are many opinions and multiple perspectives, leading to no one right answer.

    If you took a group of kids to the Urs Fischer’s, Giant Bear Lamp
    outside the Seagram building on Park Ave, and asked them to talk about
    it, they would have a lot to say, especially as this huge figure
    confronts them in an open urban space. Quoting Sara, “Why can’t public
    art be art? If it’s good work, it should hold up, and if there are different opinions about its aesthetic value, all the better that public art triggers public discussion about what constitutes a successful work of art.”

    Whether it is good or bad art, art in public spaces, or public art, as
    a teaching tool it develops a critical perspective. It initiates dialogue. It teaches you to accept and value other people’s opinions even though you may not agree with it.

    -NLE Programs-
    (Jodie Dinapoli and Julie Bell)

    Friday, August 19 at 10:55am


    No Longer Empty

    redefining public art through temporary site-specific exhibitions

    Good morning! Much discussion on this topic has been featured in the press. Latests articles are:

    - “Sculptural Surprises Grace the Streets” by Ken Johnson. NEW YORK TIMES

    - Museum Miles: The Past and Future Of Public Art In New York by David Freedlander, NEW YORK OBSERVER

    Friday, August 19 at 11:54am

First off, this sure isn’t like any ‘conversation’ that I’ve been party to. Is Plato around to record all this?

I’m surprised for all these lengthy contributions no one is addressing the terms at the heart of the discussion; i.e., ‘public,’ and ‘art.’ Only after that can anyone begin to tackle ‘public art.’

Friday, August 19 at 9:33pm


    No Longer Empty

    redefining public art through temporary site-specific exhibitions

    Please do address these terms from your point of view.

    Saturday, August 20 at 12:19pm

public art goes to jail???

@ the New York Times

Saturday, August 20 at 11:17am


    No Longer Empty

    redefining public art through temporary site-specific exhibitions

    keep yarning Olek – causes the rest of us great joy when we pass by the works.

    Saturday, August 20 at 12:40pm

I think that the function of the art work in the public sphere is to make us question about humanity items, social contexts. The condition to be part of the “public space” is a powerful tool to talk about social themes. When it comes to public art, it becomes about the needs of people around that specific site. The thing is to inquire, to be challenged, by different aesthetic categories, maybe through the humour, the beauty, etc. The effectiveness it does not depend on the permanence of the pieces, that is another subject, sometimes the power is in the collective memory.

The public space has conditions that are implacable, very interesting, the thing is to work with them, that is the challenge, to put certain questions in the public space is very complex and can be very effective inviting to reflexion, playing with the memory of the specific site.

Saturday, August 20 at 11:32pm

Manon Slome

Manon Slome

Founder and Chief Curator, No Longer Empty

As this conversation comes to a close, I want to thank the Philip Johnson Glass House for giving us the opportunity to host this discussion on Public Art. Thanks to everyone who participated and to all those who followed the conversation which we hope will continue on our web site at

Yesterday I was at a workshop at the Guggenheim/BMW Lab in lower Manhattan for a “What Next” discussion on what should happen to the space when the Lab ends. Overwhelmingly, each group of participants called for the creation of a public space where community can be forged through art practices and the exchange of knowledge and talent. There is unquestionably at the current time a sense of change (The Guggenheim is doing an Urban Lab!!) a call/urge/desire for an expanded field of reference both in terms of art making and reception that is moving art out of the seclusion of the ivory tower. As Grant Kester describes it in “Conversation Pieces”, what unites a disparate group of practioners across the world is a series of “provocative assumptions about the relationship between art and the broader social and political world and about the kinds of knowledge that aesthetic experience is capable of producing?
It is an exciting time of change, discussion, art making and sharing. A time for collaboration on many fronts. We look forward to journeying together.

Sunday, August 21 at 5:57pm

What we are doing in a completely different environment from New York, which is the Salento, the southest part of the peninsular Italy where last March we run the project space Archiviazioni (, is to create an “infrastructure” more related to how the artistic practise and the future development of this project can push the limits of the common assumptions regarding the space in which we leave and how to keep them or fight against them.

The starting point for us is an attentive analysis of the contexts, its dynamics, its processes, its balances, its richness, its complexity, its perception and communication from inside to outside and viceversa, which will take lot of time, in order to understand how to act with the diffferent actors that interact in this space and create the meanings of these assumptions.

Always thinking that we’re not outside but part of the so heated and so called “system”, so we need to deal with it first to fight against it. So the needs that our project aim to work on is the consiouness to be agents within our space, active agents of future transformations of thinking and acting, as individuals and individuals related to the collectivity or more collectivities (according with Manuel Castells who says that the unit is in the network and is composed by a variey of subjects and organizations), who can understand how the meanings of this assumptions are built and how they can become in the future, how to analyse, keep them or fight against them to create other visions that could become real possibilities.

The priority for us now is to work on this background.

In her introduction Manon Slome mentioned the public mandate: we can’t excpet it nowadays, we can’t even imagine it like at the opposite it was in the 90s in Italy (also if only for few regions). We have to start from the assumption (another one) that also public art and projects that aim to work for the common good need to be a private affaire, in terms of private iniciatives and/or supported mostly by private subjects, through “creative” ways to produce projects, like national and transnational exchanges and coproductions, or making up modalities of self-financing.
So the challenge is also to find specific models of relations, not only between art, context and audience, but also between the private requests (here mostly connected with the tourism) and the needs of the research, and the many possibilities that the artists have here to be in contact with the environment and to involve actively the citizens, for their natural and historical characters that come from the mix of cultures of which is composed, make the region nowadays to be a good laboratory for this experimentation.

Sunday, August 21 at 6:23pm


Selected list of words appearing in this and other conversations.